Gabriel Sherman wrote that biography of the late Fox News Channel president Roger Ailes – The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country – and that turned into a 2019 television series on Showtime with Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson. This was juicy stuff. Ailes had decided who the Republicans should run for president in election cycle after election cycle, not the NRA or anyone else, but a series of sexual harassment accusations and settlements ended his career. He created Fox News for Rupert Murdoch – the whole thing was his idea and he ran a tight ship – but Fox News had to let him go. Those settlements were costing them a fortune. Ailes then worked for Donald Trump as a general advisor in the 2016 campaign – they’d been friends for years – but then Ailes died. Trump shrugged, and Gabe Sherman had chronicled it all, and he is a careful guy. Sherman spent one hundred grand from his advance to have two fact-checkers go through the Ailes book before it was published. He gets things right.
And now he’s at it again:
With the coronavirus death toll surpassing 80,000 and the unemployment rate at Great Depression-era levels, there is a growing consensus among senior Republicans that Donald Trump’s reelection is slipping away. Recent internal polls show Trump trailing Joe Biden in six swing states, a data point that augurs a landslide loss in November. “The swing state polls are horrific,” a prominent Republican briefed on the numbers told me.
The White House’s COVID-19 outbreak is only the latest headline that reinforces the narrative that Trump can’t get control of the pandemic. “This is what should worry the campaign: Biden is in his basement and he’s beating Trump,” a former West Wing staffer told me. “If I were Biden, the lesson I would learn is: Shut the fuck up and let Trump go out there and destroy himself.”
Seeking to change the trajectory of the race, Trump is now discussing a shake-up to his campaign leadership, three sources close to the White House told me. Two sources said Trump has told people he wants to install 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in a senior role. “Trump’s feeling is, ‘why are we losing everywhere?’ The president is sick of it,” another former West Wing official said.
According to a source, Lewandowski has told Trump that the RNC doesn’t grasp how dire the polls are. “Corey thinks the GOP isn’t solid on fundamentals. He says the campaign and the party spend time sending out press releases bragging about how well they’re doing,” the former official said.
That’s the inside scoop, and Sherman wryly notes that Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, said in an email to him, that “literally none of this is true” – which seems to make Sherman smile. He knows these people.
The rest is inside baseball stuff – the nasty details of who is out to get whom, and why, and how – but the last paragraph is about the overall issue in the White House now:
As Trump debates who should lead his campaign, he’s also struggling to settle on a 2020 strategy. Some advisers are lobbying Trump to embrace the reopening. “They’re going to gamble on the economy and hope it works,” a former West Wing official said. But another camp is pushing the view that Trump should run on a blame-China message.
On top of everything, there is also fear in Trumpworld that Senate Republicans might finally break from him if the polls get bad enough. “The numbers are fucking terrible,” another former West Wing official said. “There’s massive anxiety in the GOP that he’s gonna take them all down with him.”
He might ruin them all, but because of another target to blame, the man who gets under his skin more than anyone else, Barack Obama. Why him? Why now? Let it go! That kind of worry may have prompted this:
President Donald Trump’s aggressive campaign to encourage sweeping investigations of his predecessor Barack Obama met a unanimous response from Senate Republicans: No thanks.
Trump’s Senate allies on Monday stopped short of echoing Trump’s frenetic and unsubstantiated claim that Obama acted illegally when the Justice Department began probing incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn in late 2016. And they indicated that the Senate would pass on investigating the former president as they conduct their own investigations that could soon ensnare other senior Obama administration officials.
They’re not fools. They know that a solid majority of Americans was fine with Obama and gave him two terms with no problem. So don’t attack the man that more than half the nation thinks was just fine. Go for the little fish:
“I’m not anticipating calling President Obama,” said Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), whose panel is investigating the origins of the 2016 Russia investigation, even as he vowed to bring in former senior Obama administration officials as witnesses. Those ex-officials include former FBI Director James Comey and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates.
“I think the president’s got a real good reason to be upset with the Obama people,” Graham said.
Senate Republicans, however, sidestepped questions of whether the Justice Department should pursue criminal investigations against the former Obama officials, instead deferring to the ongoing investigation of U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was tapped by Attorney General Williams Barr to probe the origins of the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.
They were being careful. This looks like unhinged Trump rage about something that doesn’t matter now at all, if any of it happened at all, long ago. So let Barr do his thing with that Durham guy. Let them look like fools going after what most everyone forgot long ago and don’t much care about now. If those two do somehow dig up something that anyone cares about now, fine, but the odds are that they’ll just be tools of a madman’s obsession about insults nine years ago and imaginary conversations that never happened. There are people dying out there, now, actually dying. Focus, man, focus!
After the Justice Department’s abrupt decision last week to drop the criminal case against Flynn, Trump shifted his public focus over the weekend to mount a three-day tear against his predecessor on Twitter, accusing Obama of committing the “biggest political crime in American history.” Trump sought to popularize the hashtag “Obamagate” which he said makes the Watergate scandal “look small-time.” Trump also said Obama “got caught” and later retweeted comments by Flynn’s lawyer, Sidney Powell, who said Obama was part of an effort to frame and entrap her client.
The president also retweeted a photo of himself with the caption: “Hope you had fun investigating me. Now it’s my turn.” And he retweeted a supporter’s call for former top FBI and Justice Department officials to be imprisoned.
When asked Monday what crime Obama allegedly committed, Trump replied: “You know what the crime is. The crime is very obvious to everybody; all you have to do is read the newspapers.”
But what about all the dead people, Mister President? Republicans are slowing backing away from their president, now obsessed with old enemies that don’t matter at all. He’s even talking, again, about putting Hillary Clinton in prison, forever. All the dead people are a problem, and that will get worse, but he will “get” these two, two from the old days.
Does that make sense? Paul Waldman sees that this way:
Come with me to a fantasy land where President Trump and his aides and allies have a sensible view of the political challenge he now confronts. Between the pandemic and a horrific economic crisis, they realize that Trump cannot be reelected without heroic measures. So not only do they stand up the kind of monumental testing and tracing effort that enabled countries such as South Korea to contain the coronavirus, they also throw everything they can at the economy.
Monthly checks to every family, payroll support to every business, hundreds of billions to prop up state governments crushed by the crisis, a massive new infrastructure plan — whatever it is, they’ll spend it. With interest rates bottomed out and a worldwide flight of capital to secure investments, the United States can borrow money basically for free.
And as every conservative knows, if you’re worried about deficits, you want a thriving economy. Getting that economy back on its feet as quickly and strongly as possible will not only bring down the deficit over the long term, it’s also the only thing that will avoid a political disaster in November. So spend, spend, spend.
In our fantasy land, that’s what every Republican would want to do right now.
And then there’s real life:
Despite the urgent need for more action, Republicans are in no hurry to pass another rescue package, leaving it to House Democrats to figure out what the economy needs. What you get from the Republican side is mostly resignation. The government has done what it can, they say, and now we just need to remove the stay-at-home orders and let the economy heal itself.
You can explain Trump’s own lack of interest in more spending by the fact that he has no idea what’s good for him and seems to think that if he puts on a show about how great the economy is doing, he can make it a reality. But other Republicans are not so deluded.
And now with each passing day, the idea that the economy is going to come roaring back in a few months looks less and less plausible. Not only are we nowhere near gaining control of the virus – the only thing that will allow us to “reopen” – but the damage that has already been done will persist for years.
And that means there’s only one option now, the 2008 option:
This is something that Republicans, like everyone else, are coming to understand. So some of them may be looking ahead to when Trump is no longer president.
That means, perhaps above all, resuming the deficit fear-mongering that was such an effective tool to hamstring Barack Obama’s presidency. It also means adjusting their policy and spending agenda to the defensive. They aren’t bothering to talk much about new tax cuts or anything else they’d like to pass. Instead, the focus is shifting to cutbacks and constraints. “Automatic spending cuts as the economy improves” is something a Republican would want only if there’s a Democrat in the White House. It shows that that’s precisely what at least some of them are anticipating.
Meanwhile, Republicans are encouraging and amplifying the still-small movement to defy stay-at-home orders, with all the same deranged rhetoric about “tyranny” that we heard in 2009 when conservatives rose up in rage at Obama. Any work they do now will make it easier to ramp up the new version of the Tea Party if Joe Biden wins.
That’s fine. Be the party that hates everything that is being done for anyone anywhere. Denounce all spending of any kind. Object to everything. Claim that it’s a shame you and your people are not in power. Claim the system is rigged. But stay the hell out of power. That’s nothing but trouble. Sneer! It’ll be like the good all days!
So, let Trump lose, and thus avoid the big trap out there this year:
It’s not that there’s no sincere sentiment underneath the Republican reticence to do too much to save the economy. Republicans are genuinely fearful that people will be too thankful if government helps them too much and that the crisis will make the passage of stronger safety-net programs more likely in the future.
A new Tea Party should fix that. Stop the government! Stop any governance! No safety net for anyone! But who will be shouting that now?
This only gets harder when your man is losing it:
President Donald Trump abruptly ended his White House news conference Monday following combative exchanges with reporters Weijia Jiang of CBS News and Kaitlan Collins of CNN.
Jiang asked Trump why he was putting so much emphasis on the amount of coronavirus tests that have been conducted in the United States.
“Why does that matter?” Jiang asked. “Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americans are still losing their lives and we’re still seeing more cases every day?”
Trump replied that “they’re losing their lives everywhere in the world. And maybe that’s a question you should ask China. Don’t ask me. Ask China that question.”
He hates being asked questions by professional women, so he tried to move on, but this woman persisted:
“Sir, why are you saying that to me, specifically?” Jiang asked. Jiang, who has worked for CBS News since 2015, was born in Xiamen, China, and emigrated to the United States with her family at age 2.
Trump said he would say that to “anyone who asks a nasty question.”
“It’s not a nasty question,” Jiang said. “Why does that matter?”
He just stared at her, and then things got worse:
Trump again asked for another question, then said, “Nah, that’s okay” and waved off CNN’s Collins when she approached the microphone.
“You pointed to me,” Collins said.
The president said, “I pointed to you and you didn’t respond.” Collins said she was giving Jiang the time to finish her questioning.
“Can I ask a question?” Collins said.
And then it was over:
With that, Trump called an end to the news conference, held in the White House Rose Garden, and walked away.
Everyone sat in stunned silence. What was THAT about? Republicans, however, winced. They hold the Senate. More of this and they’ll lose that. But there was more of this, as Nancy Cook reports here:
On the day the U.S. death toll from coronavirus topped 80,000, President Donald Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden for a “mission accomplished” moment.
Behind Trump were a row of American flags and a pair of giant signs reading, in all capital letters: “America leads the world in testing,” referring to the total number of U.S. tests conducted in recent months rather than per-capita testing, in which America does not lead the world. In front of Trump sat his staff and reporters, physically distanced and all wearing face masks under an edict the president said he issued Monday afternoon to control the spread of coronavirus within the West Wing.
At an event carefully crafted to reassure businesses and governors they could safely restart a crippled economy, Trump declared America had accomplished its mission on coronavirus testing.
“In every generation, through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task,” Trump said. “We have met the moment and we have prevailed.”
Cook than belabors the obvious:
It was a pronouncement incongruous with the widespread anxiety among employers across America about whether enough testing exists to reopen their workplaces. It was also incongruous with the internal turmoil spreading on Monday inside the West Wing, where officials were scrambling to prevent the virus from crippling the most famous and supposedly safest office in America – one that already featured ample testing capacity for anyone who meets with Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.
The White House Management Office issued a memo that afternoon requiring West Wing staffers to wear masks or other facial coverings at all times in the building, except at their own desks. Additional new procedures include daily testing for the majority of West Wing staff and additional teleworking depending on the office, according to two senior administration officials.
Cool, but there was a bit of unfinished business:
Under questioning from reporters, Trump later clarified that he meant the U.S. had prevailed only in creating enough tests for Americans – not that it had tamed the virus, which is expected to kill tens of thousands more Americans in the coming months.
In context, that’s not what he said, but cut him some slack – he’s rich – but of course the damage was already done:
White House aides are deeply aware the president’s message urging states to reopen their economies does not mesh with the optics of the virus spreading throughout the West Wing.
Even beyond the threat the virus could pose to the health of both Trump and Pence, aides recognized that new infections inside the White House will only mar the president’s cheerleading on the economic front and his efforts to revive the national mood ahead of the November election.
That’s obvious too. And then there was this:
President Trump was pushing to get out in the public eye in recent weeks and tout his leadership during the pandemic, and White House staff thought they had hit on the ideal event: a presidential visit to thank the Pennsylvania factory workers who had recently taken herculean steps to ramp up U.S. supplies of protective equipment.
Workers had received national attention after dozens of them lived for 28 days inside their factory so they could ensure they were virus-free and their production was not contaminated or disrupted by illness.
White House officials pressed to hold an event at the Braskem factory, initially scheduled for last Friday. But after extensive back and forth, factory officials ultimately asked to postpone, worried that a visit from Trump could jeopardize both the safety of the workers and the plant’s ability to produce special material for masks and other medical gear, according to two people familiar with the decision and documents reviewed by the Washington Post.
So that was that, Go away. You’re dangerous, because of this:
The president has told others he dislikes masks and thinks they suggest weakness, said two people familiar with internal discussions. The tone set at the top has led many White House officials and senior advisers to similarly avoid using masks. Pence said he didn’t wear a mask when he visited the Mayo Clinic because he wanted to look the doctors and staff “in the eye.”
And suddenly there was nothing else to talk about. There was work to do. Move along, folks, move along. But these are odd times:
Three days after a top aide to Vice President Pence tested positive for the deadly coronavirus – throwing President Trump and his team into an anxious frenzy – the White House made official for its employees what have long been prescribed for the public at large: masks.
A memo Monday instructed most White House officials to wear masks or face coverings in the West Wing, as well as avoid “unnecessary visits” there – directives to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading further inside the presidential compound.
The request does not apply to staff members seated at their desks if they are “appropriately socially distanced,” and Trump is not expected to wear a mask in the White House, aides said. In a sign of the haphazard effort to impose more stringent safety standards inside the White House, one senior administration official and several other aides were still arguing that masks were unnecessary for people getting regular testing just moments before the memo was sent.
A Rose Garden news conference Monday aimed at announcing new money for testing provided a striking illustration of the uneven measures, as Trump presided over the event without a mask as everyone around him, from reporters to aides, wore them.
No one knew what to make of that, but what Gabe Sherman had been hearing from his White House and Republican sources seems likely. Trump may take them all down. This may be over.